Life at Misericordia

A village of nine homes, founded by Sr. Rosemary Connolly -- Part 2

If you were to visit Misericordia, you would first see the impressive physical setting. The grounds are spacious and are beautifully landscaped with shrubs, pine trees, tulip bulbs, a gazebo, and a toboggan hill. The Village consists of nine homes. They are lovely and spacious. Each has six full baths and at least six bedrooms. Each bedroom is individually decorated with distinct light fixtures, wallpaper, flooring, bedding, and drapes. Each has a full basement and a kitchen with all the modern appliances and plenty of counter space.

You would observe the people who make up the Village. In addition to the 72 permanent residents, adults and teens with mental and physical disabilities, there are the live-in staff who commit themselves to being houseparents (full-time or part-time) for two years. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have included nurses, a soccer coach, a city engineer, an attorney, a businesswoman, a businessman, an architectural engineer, a college administrator, social workers, secretaries, podiatry students, and college students. They span three generations: grandparents, middle-aged couples, and young marrieds. They include lay and religious. These people devote a tremendous amount of time, talent, and energy to the permanent residents.

Recall that in my last post I wrote that my wife and I were houseparents for three years (a practice which was discontinued soon after our tenure). On a typical Saturday in our house, we will make a breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs, and sausages for 13 people. Afterwards, my boys will make their beds and get dressed. None of them can tie a shoe. Often shirts are put on backwards and inside out. Shoes are on the wrong feet. It takes time and patience to get it all together.

Then we play soccer. We warm up with two laps around a one-fifth mile track. (Three years ago they could run only half a lap.) Then we kick the soccer ball for an hour. (Three years ago their attention span was as long as it took to kick the ball once.)

After a light lunch, we take showers and prepare for a 4 p.m. Mass. None of the boys yet showers independently. One may not wash his legs; another resists putting his hair under the shower; a third will not completely dry himself. Two of my boys are hard of hearing and only one has diction good enough to be easily understood. Misericordia supplements regular speech with sign language.

Where, in all of this, is there time for a husband and wife? It is as if we each had two full-time jobs. What is crucial, though, is that we work side-by-side, in the home setting, and we are not doing this work to better ourselves financially.

Where, in all of this, is there time for a father and daughter? We make the time. My nine year old comes with me for the soccer. She has learned sign language. She plays with her younger sister and with the children of other houseparents. She plays catch with our boys, joins us for night prayer, rides her bike, toboggans. The five year old, too, has learned how to treat with dignity teens and adults with disabilities. It should be no surprise that I believe there could be no finer life, no better education, no greater gift that I could offer my daughters than this opportunity to share their lives, their gifts, with our boys. This life is so very full, so very rich. My family belongs to a community devoted to God and service.

You might ask, and do not be afraid to ask it, as I myself have: Who are these individuals with mental and physical disabilities that they should live in such impressive physical surroundings and receive the care of so many energetic and talented people? In articulating this question, you and I do not mean to begrudge them adequate housing, adequate food, adequate clothing, adequate education, adequate care. We simply mean to inquire into the reason for providing what is more than adequate, perhaps even extravagant, to people who, let us be honest, will never make a contribution (as normally understood) to society.

First, the Village is not a l’Arche community. It is not devoted to celibacy or poverty. If the Village were, the question of extravagance would not present itself.

I considered the answer that the Village was created and is maintained by those who say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” While there is some truth in this, as commonly understood this answer means that the Village exists out of guilt, pity, sentimentality. I reject this.

Is the Village created and maintained by those who say, “If the Village experience helps just one of the residents become a fully-fledged, gainfully employed, member of society, it will be worth it”? I reject this notion. While I believe my boys are making a great deal of progress in domestic living and the social graces, the existence of the Village cannot and should not be based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Consider, however, Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15). In this parable, the sower threw seed. Some fell on thorns, some on rocky ground, and only a portion on good earth. As originally told, the parable was Jesus’ response to the criticism that He was wasting His (valuable) time and energies in proclaiming His message to the lower classes of society. Applying the parable to our question, we can say that the Village is, very simply, imitating Jesus in lavishly providing good things and a good life to those who, to appearances, are unable to “do anything with them.”

In the next installment, I consider how the boys for whom we cared and the Village are signs.


[A link to Part 3 in this series is here.]


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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